Sunday, May 5, 2019

Sgurr Views

One of my favorite vantage points in the Hebrides is the top of An Sgurr on the island of Eigg—an iconic landmark for all who sail through these waters. Whether you are on a boat, or a nearby island, it is quite satisfying to know you've stood atop that dramatic peak when you see it from a distance.

I have climbed An Sgurr a few times over the years; the most memorable during an ice-storm in 2006. The next photo shows what the Sgurr looked like before I climbed it that time. Not very inviting—but I went up anyway.

I am so glad I decided to carry on to the top. Although the weather was awful, it cleared up every now and then, offering amazing views over the highlands of Eigg and the surrounding isles. In no particular order here is a selection of views I've seen over the years from the slopes, and the summit, of the Sgurr of Eigg.

The final shot is my favorite. It shows the mountains of Mordor (Rum) in the distance. Tolkien is said to have based Mordor on a view like this seen from the house of Howlin, three miles north of the Sgurr. If you ever have the chance visit Eigg, be sure to make the climb to the top of the Sgurr. 

PS: I will be off line for a few weeks, wandering somewhere in the hills of Morsgail, Uig, and Harris.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

A View to Scarp - and Others

Sometimes you stumble upon something special, something you've never heard of. This happened to me in the August of 2017, when I was driving to the road end in Mealasta, on the southwest coast of Lewis. As I neared the end of the road my attention was drawn to the amazing view south to Mealasta Island and Scarp. But even so, I did notice something unusual set between the road and the sea. It looked like a stone circle.

I parked the car, then made my way down the hillside to see what it was. It turned out to be a very unique view-indicator. The circle was comprised of eleven boulders, each with an embedded metal plaque that listed the place the boulder pointed to, and the distance to it. There are four island-stones, the south-most pointing the way to Scarp, just 5 miles to away. So close - yet so hard to get to.

The Scarp Stone

The four other island-stones point the way to Geisgeir, the Monachs, St Kilda, and the Flannans.

There are also three hill-stones that point to the nearby summits of Mealasbhal, Griomabhal, and Tamanasbhal. The final three stones point to some very far-off places: Nova Scotia, New Zealand, and the North Pole. If you ever make the drive to road's end at Mealasta, be sure to pay a visit to this impressive view indicator. It is a great place to go and dream of visiting the special places marked by the stones. I have been to about half of them, and someday I hope to get to the others - well, maybe not the North Pole.

New Zealand - 11,288 miles

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Beehive Butts

Regular readers of this blog will be aware I am fascinated by the old beehive dwellings. I am always on the lookout for these cells, and on two occasions became very excited when I saw what, from a distance, appeared to be beehives. But on closer examination they turned out to be something completely different. Here is the first one, which I came across on a cruise through the Orkneys in 2014.

This thing sure looked like a beehive cell. And there was not just one, but three identical cells like this in a row. They were set above a narrow bit of land between the shore and a small pond on the west side of Copinsay.

I would later learn that these little cells were wildfowl shooting butts. The backside of the cells overlooked the fresh-water pond, and there were openings to shoot through. Many unsuspecting ducks came to an untimely end here, ambushed from these beehive butts.  

The second time I was fooled was in the moorland above Hamnavay, on the island of Lewis. I was hiking in to Fidigidh, which has one of the largest collection of beehive cells in the Hebrides. As I traversed the terrain north of the Hamnavay River I spotted, from a distance, what looked like several beehives in a spot I'd not heard had cells. Thinking I'd made quite a discovery, I excitedly made my way to them.

But as I got to the cells it was apparent they were not beehives. There were several similar structures, all with rounded ends and lots of open interior space. Based on the photos, what do you think they are?

As it turns out, they were grouse-butts. A place to lay in wait and ambush unsuspecting grouse. I have never had grouse, so I've no idea what it tastes like. Here is one description I came across:

The breast is beautifully tender, rich and scented with the most delicate of gamey tangs. There's a whisper of depth, sure, and in the legs a more pronounced kick, but nothing to frighten even the most timid of palates.

My palate has never been too appreciative of gamey tangs, no matter how delicate. But it would probably be splendid washed down with a dram of Famous Grouse.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

An Island Dun

Sometimes when you're out for an island hike you encounter a surprise. A few years ago I made a circular walk on North Uist to see the souterrain of Taigh Talamhant (see the May 21, 2015 post). On the way back to the road I came across this amazing island fort in Loch na Caigainn, reached by a causeway. 

It was exciting to step across the causeway and enter the dun. It was a well defended in its day, with two flanking wings (walls) protecting the entry to the fort. Erskine Beveridge wrote about the fort in his epic book North Uist (1911). In it he mentions there was a Clach Ghlagain (rattle stone) in the causeway, that clanked loudly when stepped on to warn the dun-dwellers that someone was approaching. It was hard to tell which stone it was, because pretty much every stone clanked when I stepped on it.

Looking back to the mainland

Friday, March 29, 2019


It is about as remote as you can get, but it is on the largest Hebridean island. No roads, tracks, or paths of any kind reach this far off place, so, unless you arrive by sea, getting there involves hours of bog- and heather-hopping. I am speaking of Tealasbhaigh, at the south end of the Ardveg peninsula. The approach to it from the highlands of Ardveg is stunning, with far-sweeping views over the mouth of the loch to the mountainous isle of Scarp.

Loch Tealasbhaigh - Scarp in the distance (right)

As you descend to the shore of Loch Tealasbhaigh you pass several beautiful un-named hillside lochs.

My last hike to Tealasbhaigh was to look for beehive cells, as I had read that there was a cell here. I did find the township ruins at the head of the loch, but there were no beehive cells. (There is, however, an amazing collection of cells a kilometer to the east.)

The township ruins consist of two blackhouses, each with an attached pen. You will be hard-pressed to find any written information on the settlement. In Bill Lawson's excellent book Lewis - The West Coast in History and Legend, there is only this brief mention:  'Teallasbhagh was for a time a keeper's cottage at the back of the Arid Bheag . . . none of these little settlements lasted into census times, and  probably they all fell empty in the 1820s.'

Tealasbhaigh's only place in Hebridean history (that I know of), is as the spot where the Lewis Chessmen came to the island. As one version of the story goes, a young boy absconded with the chessmen from a ship at anchor here. He was subsequently murdered, and the chessmen taken to Uig, where they were buried in the sand. See this web-page for the complete story.

My favorite memory of Loch Tealasbhaigh is of a night in the spring of 2003. I was aboard the ship Poplar Diver, and we'd anchored there for the night. Once the hook was dropped, the skipper, Rob Barlow, went diving for scallops in the icy waters of the loch. It was my first taste of fresh-dived scallops: which to this day, for me, is still one of the highlights of a small-ship Hebridean cruise. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Great Skua

The great skua is an impressive beast. I have seen a sky full of 100,000 puffins suddenly become empty as a skua swooped through on the prowl. I have been attacked by them on several occasions, most notably on St Kilda, Rona, and Hermaness (Unst). For their first attack they like to dive in from behind, trying to get a piece of your scalp. It can be quite startling if you don't see them coming.

Here are a few Skua pictures I've taken over the years. If you look at the March 17, 2013 post, you will find video of a skua attack on Rona. Looking at that old post, made exactly six years ago, reminded me that the blog is in its seventh year, with over 600 posts. If the Skuas don't get me, I hope to make at least another 600.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Pabay Mor in Song

When first he rounded Pabay Mor
And met the mountain waves alone
There was fear till there was fear no more
Wild Atlantic son

This is the first verse of Pabay Mor; a beautiful song that eloquently invokes the ever-present challenge of the sea in the lives of the Hebrideans. I have been to this beautiful island several times over the years, and have experienced first-hand the severe sea-change often encountered when rounding the island to leave the sheltered waters of Loch Rog. One second the boat is lazily motoring forward, the next it is plowing through heavy seas.

Here are links to two versions of Pabay Mor. Have a listen, I think you'll like them. Below these links are a few images of beautiful Pabay Mor.